The viral photograph of a father and a young daughter who drowned face down on the shore of the Río Grande has convinced Bill McLaughlin.
He wanted to go down to the border, do portraits and exhibit them in galleries in the United States to show the humanitarian crisis.
“I wanted people here to meet them,” said McLaughlin, an artist from New Berlin in rural Chenango County. “You go in there and you kind of walk among them and the point is to see the humanity of these people, and not to see them as migrants or asylum seekers.”
McLaughlin didn’t know where to go. He contacted Border Angels, a non-profit organization working on the border with migrants and asylum seekers. Border Angels agreed to show McLaughlin the shelters, so he took a train to San Diego and started taking pictures. At the time of his visit, around 40,000 migrants were living in tent cities on the border, McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin’s resulting portrait collection, titled “LIVING IN LIMBO: Portraits from the Border,” documents migrants in Tijuana, Mexico in 2019, who were stranded at the border due to a Trump-era policy titled “Stay in Mexico”. This program forced migrants to wait in Mexico until their court dates in the United States.
The portraits are on display at the ArtRage Gallery on Hawley Ave. in Syracuse until October 30; a virtual exhibition is also available online.
Many migrants McLaughlin met were fleeing gang violence in Mexico and other parts of Central America. The title of the collection reflects the uncertain state these migrants live in: they cannot move forward in the United States but cannot return to the dangers they face at home.
Hailing from Jersey City, McLaughlin decided that portraits were the best way to connect people to these stories. The photos of the border that McLaughlin saw made migrants look desperate and dangerous, he said.
“In the past when we’ve seen groups of people being ‘tampered with’ it creates a feeling of empowerment to commit atrocities,” McLaughlin said. “We can treat them as less than human because we have now ‘other-ized’ them. And that’s what I saw happen to me.
In his quest to create a collection of portraits, there was a major challenge: People were afraid of having their picture taken, as many of the gangs these migrants flee from have connections across the border and could target them.
Despite the danger, some of those who agreed to have their pictures taken smiled.
“They are hopeful, they are so close,” McLaughlin said. “Even though they are in this horrible situation, they still have hope because they are so close to their goal.”
But amidst the misery and fear in these tent cities, McLaughlin has found kindness.
“The people who have the least to give are often the most generous,” he said. “I have always been treated with kindness and respect and of course the ultimate act of generosity – letting me take their photos and share their stories.”
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